Artist-in-Residence Blog: Lessons at 5:20 AM

May 14, 2014

May 11, 2014

The word went out among birders that the migratory songbirds were due for a station stop at Mount Auburn Cemetery this morning, Mother’s Day, 2014. In a meeting at the Cemetery on Friday, I was warned that the birds would bring with them hordes of serious birders, casual birders, tourists, and seasonal visitors.

Lovely, except I like to work alone. In fact, I need solitude when I’m filming, so I can hear the environment and listen for the whispers of the interred. No, not literally. Metaphorically. Do we living drown out the dead with our constant noises? Besides, my mind was full of thoughts of my own mother, who passed away in 2010; my daughter’s mother, now my ex-wife and co-parent for over ten years; my partner, who is a wonderful mother to her two boys; my long-deceased grandmothers, and the many other mothers I’ve known.

So I arrived at the Cemetery at 5:20 AM this morning, head full and craving solitude, moving as quietly as possible. As far as I know, I was the only living human on the 175 acres and 98,000 graves. Perfect.

I set up a stereo digital audio recorder by the shore of Halcyon Pond, hidden from human eyes and out of the path of passers-by. I wanted to record the sounds of birds. Birds love water, not just because they’re thirsty. The pond in early morning means bugs. I imagine it as an avian banquet.

I then went to the Cemetery’s Washington Monument, the highest spot on the property. I’d avoided going to the Tower before this, frankly because it’s just too easy to set up a camera and film the sun rising. Sure to be gorgeous, but visually speaking, this is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel. However, this morning, I was after daytime time lapses, so I needed plenty of open sky. The tower is the place to get that.

For this project I’ve been spending untold hours reading books about, letters by, and headstones of the deceased, from the inception of the Cemetery in 1831 to today. Many of these passages are moving. There are many references to earth, sky, spirituality and eternity, hence my decision to name my artistic historical digital multimedia installation “” So, over the coming 18 months, I’m filming the movements of clouds and celestial objects, and the effects of the seasons on the landscape of the Cemetery, including plants, insects, birds, and living people.

I set up one camera by the side of the Tower, looking out in the direction of Harvard Stadium. I set up a more complex time lapse system below the Tower, looking up at it. Since it was overcast and dark, I hoped to see the clouds flitting by, framing the tower, as the sun slowly illuminated the structure. Well, that was the plan, anyway…

I then set out with a third camera and five lenses to explore the nearby area on foot, imaging things great and small, high and low. A large turkey hen kept her eye on me, flirtatiously staying within viewing range. Or perhaps she just didn’t give a darn that I was there. Either way, I heard the Tom turkey somewhere off in dark, in the near distance, hooting his displeasure…or perhaps making mating calls.

I’ve learned to give Tom turkeys wide berth, but this time I wondered if Mr. Tom might decide to change my delicate and complicated camera settings while I was eyeing his hen. I dismissed this as highly unlikely, and happily trotted about, filming everything from the drip of a water faucet to commanding vistas, all accompanied by a massive cacophony of birds that you had to hear to believe.

I met my first human of the day around 7 AM. Mr. Rathbone, a birder, came upon one of my time lapse setups, clicking away all by itself on a large tripod. I saw him from a ways off, looking quizzically at this contraption pointed at the sky. I came up and we chatted about the birds he saw this morning, how he loves Mount Auburn, and the changing of the seasons.

Soon after our chat, the area around the Tower became deluged with bipeds. People driving, people walking, people with binoculars, people with cameras. I was just planning to leave when Willie, an affable staff member, came up and opened the tiny Tower door. So much for my getting out of there. I climbed the small, spiral stairway to the top with my heaviest tripod, knowing it would be windy up there. By this time, the clouds had parted and the sun was well up in the sky. The views were indeed breathtaking.

After shooting motion pictures and stills, I descended, gathered my gear from all over, and took the longest possible route out of the Cemetery, stopping frequently to shoot stills at a variety of focal lengths and chat with visitors, all of whom were warm and friendly.

I finally saw the Tom turkey with two hens. He saw me, immediately got between me and the hens and mooned me, displaying magnificent plumage. I happily snapped away, which attracted a few tourists with cameras. We smiled at each other while Mr. Turkey hooted his disapproval of our presence.

Down by Halcyon pond, I retrieved my digital audio recorder and met a charming, stately lady who complained about the crowds at the Arnold Arboretum for Lilac Sunday, and how Mount Auburn was so much quieter.

Everything’s relative, I suppose.


-Roberto Mighty


Roberto Mighty is Mount Auburn’s first artist-in-residence. A new media filmmaker, photographer, and sound designer, Mighty will be documenting the conservation of the Amos Binney monument and creating a short film about the project and the monument’s history as part of our IMLS grant. Follow along with his progress by clicking the ‘Artist in Residence’ tag at the bottom of this post.

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